From cooking poverty to cooking decency: A heart-head-hands approach and five 'I's actions

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Photos: Flickr via Creative Commons


As we ring in the New Year with delicious food prepared in a modern cooking environment, let’s not forget that 2.6 billion people—about one-third of the global population—are still living in cooking poverty , meaning they rely on polluting, traditional fuels and technologies to cook their meals. Without accelerated action, some 2.4 billion people will remain in cooking poverty in 2030. The cost to human health, women’s productivity, and the environment/climate is staggering , conservatively estimated at US$2.4 trillion per year. Furthermore, about 4 billion people are yet to reach cooking decency, meaning they lack access to modern energy cooking services—that is, cooking solutions that are clean, efficient, convenient, safe, reliable, and affordable.

How can we eliminate cooking poverty to reach universal access to clean cooking by 2030, a key component of achieving Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG 7)? How can we help all people to live in cooking decency? In a recent article, I introduced a heart-head-and-hands approach and five “I”s actions to accelerate the transition, summarized in the figure below.

The Heart: Putting People at the Center

Cooking is an essential daily activity often taken for granted. It takes empathy and compassion to understand how not having access to clean cooking can adversely impact people’s lives. Such an understanding will enable decision makers to make access to clean cooking a political priority and put users at the center of developing and delivering clean cooking solutions. In fact, the success of clean cooking initiatives depends on whether the interventions are designed to respond to users’ cooking needs, taking into account their unique cooking practices and preferences, fuel accessibility constraints, and affordability levels, among other diverse cultural and socioeconomic considerations. The World Bank’s Multi-Tier Framework (MTF) for cooking and guide to collecting energy access data are useful tools for conducting assessments of proposed interventions. 

The economic and social opportunities made possible by clean cooking interventions are particularly important for empowering women, youth, and other often marginalized groups.  Therefore, for those households that cannot afford the cost, the delivery of clean cooking solutions should be part and parcel of social safety net programs. The Clean Cooking Fund co-financed Rwanda Energy Access and Quality Improvement Project takes a pro-poor, results-based financing approach, which provides greater financial support to poorer households to fill the affordability gap.

The Head: Developing National Strategies and Roadmaps

Achieving universal access to clean cooking should be fully and formally integrated into the strategic energy development and planning process and other relevant policies and strategies , such as the Nationally Determined Contributions and COVID-19 recovery plans. The effort needs to be led by a designated institutional champion responsible for coordination with key stakeholders and accountability for achieving results. The clean-cooking strategy development and planning process requires taking stock of the baseline situation on cooking energy demand, supply, and the policy environment, combined with lessons and insights gained from the review of relevant programs and consultations with a wide range of stakeholders. The transition pathways of national roadmaps to universal access should be guided by a least-cost, best-fit strategy that reflects diverse users’ needs, local market conditions, and national comparative advantages on energy resources. Through the process, governments can raise awareness among key stakeholders, build coalitions and partnerships, and mobilize public and private investments needed to implement the roadmaps.

It is worth noting that, through the UN High-Level Dialogue on Energy, an increasing number of countries and organizations including the World Bank have put forward energy compacts with clean cooking targets. The Clean Cooking Fund is also developing a planning tool to help countries explore potential transition pathways to achieve universal access to clean cooking.

The Hands: Focusing on Results-Oriented Implementation

Strategy development, planning, and implementation require hands-on practices; sufficient budget allocation; learning from doing; and continued monitoring, evaluation, and adjustment to achieve better results.  Because cooking is a contextualized system, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Program design and implementation should focus on encouraging the development of contextualized solutions and continued innovation for improving access to modern energy cooking services. Advancing localized, best-fit approaches, in turn, can lead to realizing the longer-term development co-benefits of adopting clean cooking solutions (e.g., better health, gains in gender equality, and a greener planet).

Learning from international best practices, collaborating with key partners, and empowering local practitioners are important parts of implementation. The Clean Cooking Fund has initiated the Clean Cooking Community of Practice (CoP)—a platform that facilitates knowledge exchange and discussion among experts in the field and connecting practitioners working to increase access to clean cooking in developing countries.

Five “I”s Actions

Clean cooking must be prioritized as a critical cross-sectoral development issue. Making progress toward the aspirational goal of universal access requires accelerated actions by all stakeholders. To develop a sustainable clean cooking market, we need to improve the overall ecosystem by raising awareness, enhancing partnerships, harnessing synergies, and monitoring progress with new data and tools.  Strengthening the evolving ecosystem requires that our efforts focus on the following, mutually-reinforcing actions aligned with the heart-head-and-hands approach:

  • Integration. Clean cooking for all must be integrated into national policies and planning for energy, climate, and COVID-19 recovery.
  • Investments. A dramatic scale-up in both public and private investments is needed to implement clean cooking strategies and action plans to achieve on-the-ground results.
  • Innovation. Catalysts are needed to spur market innovations that can deliver affordable, clean cooking solutions at scale.
  • Impacts. Achieving development impacts requires adopting human-centered approaches aligned with both diverse user needs and broader development objectives (e.g., climate, health, gender, jobs, and sustainable livelihoods).
  • Inclusiveness. The approaches adopted must ensure inclusiveness by addressing the needs of poor, vulnerable, fragile, and displaced populations, as well as engaging and empowering women across the clean-cooking value chains.

Cooking poverty is a solvable problem. Working together with hearts, heads, and hands and a focus on the five “I”s actions, we can deliver cooking decency for all and contribute to the green, resilient and inclusive development. 

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Yabei zhang

Senior Energy Specialist, World Bank

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